This picturesque town is filled with delicious Syrian-style food you can literally eat out of a family’s kitchen. The Arabic of the villagers mingles with the Hebrew of the tourists.
What you might not know is that Jews are not just visitors to this town. Peki’in is the site of a Jewish community that has continuously lived there- since the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago. It’s something I knew little about when I arrived- and learned a lot about when I visited.
My first glimpse into the Jewish past of this town was that there’s a rabbi’s cave. What is a rabbi’s cave? Well Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai (Rashbi) was hiding from the Romans in 70 C.E., who forbade the study of Torah. So he came to this cave and hid to keep his traditions- our traditions- alive. It’s utterly fascinating how every corner of this land is filled with my history.
Here’s his digs and a taste of the town:
After this delightful Jewish surprise, my friend and I headed to eat Druze food out of the backyard of a man’s home (the guy in my cover photo). This is not a restaurant- there is no menu. There is delicious food that they bring you from their home kitchen, you eat, and then pay for. And mostly you moan in pleasure the whole time as you devour delicious salads, fresh pita, and meat.
I had a great time talking with the Druze family in Arabic. Not only is our Arabic very close (I learned the Syrian dialect and most Israeli Druze migrated to present-day Israel from Syria), but I feel very affirmed by them Jewishly. For example, an old Druze woman (in Hebrew) wished me a Rosh Hashanah sweeter than apples and honey. The Druze people know the Jewish holidays, they respect Jewish holy sites, they frankly just love Jews. Given all the traumas that Jews have experienced- and the subsequent sectarian bitterness that can come between us- I sometimes feel safer as a Jew with Druze than as a Jew with Jews!
Thinking I had finished my adventure, I came across two elderly women. I thought both were Druze. But one woman- in Druze Arabic- tells me she’s Jewish. Say what? She then tells me (again, this is all in Arabic) that there is a synagogue in the town built at the time of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago.
She grabbed her keys and said she’d open it for me.
At this point, Jewish tourists start crowding around us as I explain what’s going on in Hebrew. We head to the synagogue and lo and behold- there is one. And inside, she explains, are fragments from Jerusalem at the time of the Temple- maybe even from the Temple itself. I didn’t take pictures because it was the Sukkot holiday and even though nobody was praying, I felt it was disrespectful.
But man was it awesome. I gingerly asked her if I could touch one of the menorah-shaped stones from the time of the Temple. She said of course. And so I touched the stones my ancestors carved 2,000 years ago. I’ve never felt so connected to my past- or to the reasons I came to live here. Judaism is not a metaphor in Israel- it is both past and present. I brought my soul home to where it came from. I think my ancestors would be proud.
Still in awe of this experience (and having had the chance to climb to the roof of the synagogue, which was also cool), I strolled down the street. A man sat on his porch and we started to talk. At first we talked in Hebrew, and then in Druze Arabic. Turns out he’s from the same family as the elderly woman who let me into the synagogue.
And, of course, because “two Jews, three opinions”, they don’t talk! The man’s family had left the village for a few years because they were uncertain what might happen in Israel’s War of Independence. They feared that the Arab armies might kill them. So as a child, he moved with several other Peki’in families to the Israeli city of Hadera. He told me how as a kid, since his native tongue was Arabic, he often felt afraid to talk lest the other kids think he was the “enemy”. So he learned Hebrew in school and spoke Arabic at home.
As an adult, he chose to return to Peki’in to look after his family’s lands. And due to who knows what kind of internal politics involving the Jewish Agency and the village synagogue etc etc, he and the old woman down the street- the only other Jew in town- don’t talk.
Sometimes there are valid reasons not to talk to others. I know this from having dealt with toxic relatives myself. That being said, there’s something about this story that just disturbs me.
You’ve got a community of Jews who despite invader after invader after massacre after persecution managed to remain present in the land of Israel for 2,000 years. And yet, the last two Jews there just can’t make it work.
Here’s my thought. Peki’in is a beautiful town. If you haven’t gone, stop going to the same goddamn bar in Tel Aviv and get off your ass and visit your past. The air will fill your soul and you can just be in the moment. No yoga needed.
And if you’re a Jew, remember the lesson of Peki’in. Diversity is good, survival is crucial, and so is tolerance. If we get to a place where we’re so few yet so divided, how will we ever move forward? Extend the olive branch, step outside your bubble, and show your neighbor some love.
If we can’t learn it from ourselves, then learn it from the Druze. Love your neighbor as yourself. Always with kippah, sometimes with one, or without one. Secular, Reform, Orthodox. In Arabic. In Hebrew. In your heart.